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Best player available vs. trading up: What draft-day approach should the 49ers take?

The 49ers have a lot of freedom after addressing needs in free agency?

NFL Combine Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The 49ers can afford to be quietly satisfied with their business in the first week of free agency.

While there were expected losses from a roster that was a win away from the Super Bowl, the Niners have addressed needs on the interior of the defensive line and at nickel corner, and brought back key contributors from 2022 at center and safety to ensure they can be confident in their options at those positions.

San Francisco obviously does still have areas that are weaker than others but, as focus gradually turns to next month’s draft, the 49ers’ roster is one with so few holes that they can go into the NFL’s annual selection meeting with a degree of freedom.

The 49ers are not in a position where they must draft for need. Instead, they face an intriguing choice. Sit back and pick the best of the players to slide into their path when they finally pick in the back half of the third round, or attempt to make an audacious move up the board to get the best prospect possible. But which would be the best course of action?

The waiting game a wise one to play?

The most significant benefit of having few clear-cut needs is that it facilitates draft-day flexibility, the 49ers are not limited to any one direction and, if they so choose, can let the board come to them and simply pick the best player available.

While there has been much criticism of this draft class, it has depth at enough positions to make a BPA approach an appealing one.

San Francisco could wait it out and acquire more talented defensive line depth, finally acquire a dynamic second tight end to take some receiving burden off George Kittle or elect to restock the cupboard at a cornerback position where the 49ers have lost former starters in Emmanuel Moseley and Jimmie Ward, who transitioned from safety to nickel last year.

With three compensatory selections in the third round, the Niners can theoretically have their pick of the top talents that slide towards day three and fill out their roster with prospects who will be under little pressure to perform right away given the level of top-tier starters on San Francisco’s roster.

But the 49er front office has been defined by its aggressiveness recently, and John Lynch, Adam Peters and Kyle Shanahan may deem it better to eschew a passive approach in favour of a more ambitious plan of attack that lands the Niners a player they hope can make a more immediate impact.

The case for another trade

The 49ers have not been afraid to part with future draft capital in recent blockbuster moves (see: Trey Lance, Christian McCaffrey), and the possibility of them packaging a 2024 pick with some of their 2023 selections to address one of the few more evident weaknesses on the roster cannot be ruled out.

San Francisco is slated to have five compensatory selections in the 2024 draft, per Nick Korte, ammunition that may offer the 49ers more encouragement to part with a selection from next year’s draft to land a player in this class with whom they are suitably enamored.

The positions they could target? Even though the 49ers signed Colton McKivitz to a two-year extension, furthering belief he is the favorite to be Mike McGlinchey’s successor, right tackle stands out as an obvious one if San Francisco believes there is a prospect with a second-round grade who is capable of challenging McKivitz for the job as a rookie.

Drake Jackson’s lack of action in the closing weeks of the regular season and the playoffs is reason for concern about a player who right now would be the starter at defensive end across from Nick Bosa. This year’s edge class does not have the same depth as the interior defensive line group but, if there is a surprising slide for a player of Will McDonald’s promise, to use an example, could the Niners be persuaded to get ultra-aggressive and give themselves two exciting young edge prospects to develop?

There may be a similar conversation surrounding the safety position, which is not as talent-laden as the cornerback class but has several players who operate as moveable chess pieces on defense with their ability to defend deep and play in the slot.

Tashaun Gipson was brought back on a one-year deal to reprise his safety partnership with Talanoa Hufanga but, if the Niners identity a player at the position who they think can quickly earn snaps in the secondary while being groomed to take over from Gipson, it may be prudent to move up and ensure they do not miss out.

The overarching school of thought is that trading down typically proves a wiser decision than a dramatic move up the board, suggesting the 49ers may be better served standing pat and taking the best player available.

Yet, areas of depth in a draft can quickly be eroded by a run on a certain position. Though they don’t pick until the third round, the 49ers have the future resources to avoid being caught out by such a scenario. For a team still firmly in win-now mode, another ambitious draft-day decision may be the right one.